The Kentucky Education Association is a statewide member organization and lobbying group for public school educators. Last week, KEA members elected the association’s former vice president Eddie Campbell to be their new president. Campbell takes over for Stephanie Winkler, whose term ended.
I spoke with Campbell about his new job and the future of KEA. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Congratulations on being elected President of the Kentucky Education Association. For those who may be less familiar with the Association, what is KEA?
"The Kentucky Education Association is the preeminent voice for public education in the state of Kentucky. We have 44,000 members that range from aspiring educators all the way through retired members. Active members include classroom teachers and education support professionals such as bus drivers, classroom aides, secretaries — anyone who works within a school system can be members of our association. We advocate for our members, and we also advocate for public education, so that students across the state of Kentucky can have a high quality public education."
As an officer of KEA, you are on loan from Knox County Schools. Can you explain what that means?
"I'm released from my local school district in Knox County, where I was a middle and high school choir director. I'm still an employee of Knox County [Public Schools], but they released me to come and do this work for public education in the state."
KEA has received more public attention in the past couple of legislative sessions as teachers have protested major education bills. KEA did not call for the sickouts during the 2019 session, but from the Association's perspective, was that teacher-led advocacy effective?
"I think the advocacy of educators across the state has been very effective over the last two years. We encourage educators to stand up for their professions. We actively encourage that, but at the same time, our educators care about their students. They want to be in their positions caring for their students every day."
What would you point to, if you think that advocacy was effective this past legislative session? What kind of effect do you think it had?
"I think it’s raised awareness of the importance of public education in our state, making sure that our educators have security, that our students have fully-funded classrooms and equipment — that our schools are being lifted up. Our main focus is always to ensure that we have a quality public education for our students."
One of the bills teachers protested this year, House Bill 525, would have reduced the number of seats KEA nominates on the teacher pension board. Do you see that as an attack on KEA?
"I think our members felt like that was a retribution for all their advocacy for organizing for public education over the last couple of years.
"The nominating committee simply takes in the nominations and places members on the ballot. The [KTRS board] itself has been raised up by multiple [members of legislative] committees on the hill [who have] talked about how well they manage the system. One of the reasons they manage that system so well is because the members of that committee have skin in the game."
You said you think some members did see it as retribution. What does that tell us about KEA’s current relationship with the legislature?
"Our members have been working really hard to build strong relationships with all the representatives and senators on the hill. They are meeting with them on a regular basis, coming to Frankfort to meet with them face-to-face. They’re also meeting with them at home to build those relationships, so that the legislators understand what’s going on in their classrooms, what’s going on in their jobs."
You're starting a three-year term. What are some of your priorities and things you hope to accomplish in the next few years?
"I want to continue to raise our educator voice so that we're boldly and bravely speaking the truth about public education and what it means for our students, for the educators who serve those students.
"I want to make sure that we're fully funding public education. Education has been cut several times over the last four or five budget cycles. We have classrooms, we have equipment that is falling behind.
"We want to ensure that our students have the highest quality public education possible. We want to make sure that they have the materials they need, that our classrooms are fully resourced, that our educators feel secure and sound so that they're not worried about other things — so they can focus on teaching their students … because public education is the great equalizer. As educators we open the doors of our building, which are the hearts of our community and say, 'Come to us, we want to make sure that you have every opportunity possible.' "
Some teachers have expressed that they want KEA to take a more proactive role in lobbying to prevent bills that may negatively affect educators and public schools from ever being introduced. Do you want KEA to be more proactive? How would you do that?
"I want our organization to be proactive from the very beginning. I want all educators, all our members in KEA, to be fully informed of the issues that are going on. I want their voices to be raised, and I want them to have contact with their legislators so that they’re having those conversations before they even come to Frankfort.
"Our educators are going to advocate for their students from their classroom, from their buses, from the bus barn, from the halls of their school, from the streets of their communities, all the way to Frankfort, so that they are fully informed and fully informing those who represent them here in Frankfort — and building those relationships at home will have great effects."